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BOSTON — Annie Baker creates characters you just want to hug.
And I don’t even like hugging people.
Most people, anyway.
But Annie Baker’s characters, you just want to take them aside, give them a hug and say, “It’s gonna be all right. You’re all such good, interesting folks, it’ll be fine. Just give it time.”
In 2010, three Boston theaters got together to present three of Baker’s “Vermont Plays,” introducing locals to one of the great artists of her thirtysomething generation. The now-34-year-old playwright brilliantly captured the silent yearnings and desires of a generation shielding itself from a lack of meaning in their lives with “whatever” shrugs and “totally awesome” irony. Even more impressively, she cut to the quick of their parents’ realizations that life didn’t add up to what they had hoped it would.
Any one of her characters could give in to depression or soul-crushing developments in their lives, and some of them do, but there’s a basic humanism, and humor, in Baker’s writing that not only keeps them afloat, but makes them among the most endearing contemporary characters in today’s theater. Even over the course of three hours.
As one of her young characters says in “Nocturama,” the one Vermont play that hasn’t been done here (hint, hint):
“It’s just … wow. Everybody has like the saddest life of all time.
“Not in a bad way.”
Pay attention to those ellipses and pauses. They’re as important in Baker as in Pinter, though used for different effect — inarticulate stirrings of the heart for Annie, psychological tension in Pinter.
Shawn LaCount sure pays attention to them for Company One, which moves into the renovated Modern Theatre, once a movie house itself, for this one production (through March 15). The artistic director’s staging of “The Aliens” might have been the most impressive of all three of those Vermont plays and now Baker and LaCount are together again in “The Flick,” another remarkable collaboration. LaCount speaks Baker-ese fluently.
You sense, at a Company One production, that the troupe is reaching out to audiences that other theaters aren't, particularly young audiences. And the laughter that you hear at "The Flick" — Baker's humor kind of turns irony in on itself — sounds like a new generation learning to love the theater. (Us geezers are laughing pretty hard, too.)
Granted this is a promotional video, but the interviewee sounds like a genuine convert:
Bostonians are even closer to home here than in the Vermont plays as the three main characters are employees of a single-screen independent theater in central Massachusetts. She has described them as a lower-middle class Jewish guy in his 30s, a younger hyper-educated black man and a woman who wears baggy clothes and no makeup. “It is so rare,” she says in the program notes, “to encounter any of those people in plays and movies. It feels like those people are forced to wander outside of and on the periphery of plays and movies.”
Well, wander no more. They join Tony Kushner’s, David Mamet’s and August Wilson’s previously marginalized characters as among the most memorable in late 20th and early 21st century American theater.
LaCount and his three actors certainly do their part in making them so memorable. Actually, there’s a fourth, Steven Chueka, who makes a couple of cameo appearances, but it’s Peter Andersen, Brenna Fitzgerald and Alex Pollock, who also starred in “The Aliens,” who so warmly and wittily inhabit their characters.
Andersen is Avery, a young, black intellectual who lives, eats and breathes films. Float any two actors’ names by him and he can connect them in the Six Degrees game within a minute. Baker constructs a fascinating duality with Avery. Most playwrights — Mamet, Clifford Odets, John Patrick Shanley — treat film like the ugly duckling, lacking the integrity of the theater.
They do speak from experience, it should be said, but Baker’s perspective is more removed, and far more interesting. Avery treats film like the major art form of our day, and Baker fully respects that. He also has exquisite taste as he puts down every American movie since “Pulp Fiction” as “not a great movie.” (I wouldn’t argue with him.)
Whether Baker agrees or not, she is also a movie lover, and a “Pulp Fiction” lover. At the same time, it’s obvious that Avery is also running away from life and living his dreams through the movies, like the protagonists of two of the films that fueled the play, Woody Allen’s “The Purple Rose of Cairo” and Buster Keaton’s “Sherlock Jr.”
Pollock’s Sam and Fitzgerald’s Rose — Allen really did inspire Baker — have similar conflicts. Sam’s love of movies is more commercial and his life less grounded as he watches people 10 years younger than he is move ahead in the little theater’s pecking order. Pollock brings to mind another Woody — Harrelson — as he has a dozen or so ticks working to great effect in “The Flick.”
Sam’s in love with Rose, the projectionist, but is he really in love with her or with a fantasy he’s created about her? And while she’s the most free-spirited of them, she’s also the most lost. She doesn’t even have a love of movies to guide her.
The Flick is the name of the movie theater that brings the threesome together and here, again, Baker is a master of duality. It’s claustrophobic and liberating. Its 35-millimeter projector is a symbol of glorious artfulness and fading craftsmanship. It’s a tribute to America’s past and a symbol of quick-buck mediocrity. It unites the trio while driving them into Darwinian desperation. Cristina Todesco's set — a row of seats facing the audience — is well-nigh perfect.
While Baker captures their revulsion toward the established order, she won’t give in to their dismissiveness of the world around them. Baker doesn’t provide a road map to making the best of a confusing world, but she does give us the hope that some of them will figure it out for themselves.
And probably without a hug.